Council Post: Rules Of Reputation Management During A Polycrisis: How To Prepare Your Team


Chief Marketing Officer at VistaJet, board advisor and professor at the International University of Monaco.

The Ukraine war, the climate crisis, the economic fallout from Covid, widening inequality, hybrid working, the implosion of Big Tech and shifting ideas about what it means to be a leader in 2023 are all conspiring to create an unholy mess for many businesses today.

The World Economic Forum’s 2023 gathering in Davos only validated this reality. The polycrisis was a central motif of the WEF’s annual global risks report and peppered conversations in cocktail parties, panel discussions and meetings alike. Since Davos, the term has reached peak ubiquity: scan CEOs’ LinkedIn posts, newspaper think-pieces, or even the latest dispatch from UNICEF, and it’s there—a sobering reminder of tough times ahead.

The confluence of calamities isn’t just a far-reaching macro-trend; it is impacting real businesses in unexpected ways, and it’s little wonder businesses are nervous and confused. But quick-thinking action from your marketing team can help save your brand from long-term damage. How can brands navigate the never-ending polycrisis?

In an age when a problem can be tweeted, TikToked, Insta-ed, Snapped, Slacked and made into memes across the planet within minutes, how a business is perceived to manage these events is arguably just as important as how effectively the C-suite has handled them.

How people perceive your brand during a setback is largely down to two things: a resilient, well-prepared internal team and a good working relationship with the media to ensure the most truthful message reaches the public. Here, I’ll tackle the first stage: prepping your team so they’re crisis-ready.

Develop an emergency response plan.

Everyone working for an airline—from the pilot in the cockpit to the overalls-clad engineer working on the asphalt runway—will be familiar with an emergency response plan (ERP). It’s an item that has near-canonical status in the aviation industry, largely because it covers everything the airline should be doing during an emergency, including drills for fires, notifying relatives and handling social media comms after an event. Fortunately, ERPs rarely need to be used, but the existence of an ERP in itself helps create an organizational culture vigilant for potential crises.

All businesses/marketing teams could benefit from creating their own ERP: a comprehensive crisis management plan sketching every conceivable danger along with an appropriate response. Key to this is establishing a chain of command for the comms team during an emergency. Who will give statements to the public? Are you ready to timely manage your website and social media? Are any extra resources needed?

Once you’ve prepared your ERP, don’t store it away. Any sharp-minded CMO should constantly road-test it with their team, running possible scenarios. Set regular meetings to discuss potential flashpoints, like press articles building chatter on sensitive topics or a negative tweet about your services. At this stage, these issues are nothing more than barely audible murmurs. However, it’s possible to address them should they start building up.

Establish a line of communication with all your staff.

While a crisis might catch the C-suite unaware, junior staff may have spotted warning signs in their jobs. A front-line colleague will know where the company is most vulnerable. Ensure all department heads have an open line of communication with the marketing team.

Mobilize your team.

Employees are a critical component of any communications strategy. It’s important to inform all members of staff about the corporate position, reminding them they’re all ambassadors for the company. All it takes is one rogue executive using some ill-chosen words on social media to put the whole company at risk.

Get strength from your company values.

Brands seem all too eager to communicate their corporate values. But unless companies exercise these behaviors, they risk being vague words listed on a website.

The avalanche of adversities that companies face during the polycrisis is the perfect opportunity to live up to their values. If these principles are embedded into the subconscious of every employee, they can act as an ethical lodestar during sink-or-swim situations, guiding decision-making, marshaling a team around a consolidated approach, and cementing buy-in among younger staff (only 19% of Gen Z would work for a company that didn’t share its values, according to one study).

Select your spokesperson.

Traditional wisdom dictates the chief executive should be the figurehead of the organization during a crisis. The CEO must express empathy, radiate calm amid chaos, rally others and show the company is taking responsibility. Just think of Sir Richard Branson, who rushed directly to the scenes of fatal crashes involving Virgin Trains (2007) and Virgin Galactica (2014) to take accountability and sympathize with survivors.

Instead of defaulting to your CEO, identify the right spokesperson for the message. That could be the head of operations (the COO) or an authority on the subject, such as a scientist or health expert working within your organization. Ensure they are authentic communicators (the public can spot insincerity a mile off) and give them plenty of media training first.

Be intentional about post-crisis care.

Given the velocity of today’s news cycle, conducting an autopsy into your response may not avert another one happening in the future. Instead, it might be more productive to use the crisis to understand how the public views your product, brand or industry. Did the incident unveil any new attitudes or purchasing behaviors? If so, it could trigger a new conversation that could bring your brand to a better place, even unearthing what caused the crisis.

Crises are mentally and physically exhausting. But as stressful as they are, they also put your brand under the microscope, illuminating its strengths, weaknesses and the truth about how others perceive it. Put simply, they’re the perfect stress test for your company and can help it come out more robust and ready for the next challenge—if handled well. And that’s a skill all businesses will need in their armory as the polycrisis continues to keep us company.

Forbes Communications Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies. Do I qualify?

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